Trump’s dilemma

Donald Trump campaigned as the man who would restore teeth to American foreign policy. Red lines would be enforced. The Iran nuclear deal, thanks to which the mullahs were able to finance aggression throughout the Middle East, would be overturned. Iran would not obtain nuclear weapons. There would be a new sheriff in town.

This was good campaign rhetoric. Weakness is unappealing. Strength sells.

Trump also campaigned as the man who would keep America out of war. He denounced prior U.S. interventions, most notably the one in Iraq, which he supported at the time it occurred.

This was good campaign rhetoric. War is unappealing. Peace sells.

The problem, though, is the obvious tension between these two sets of rhetoric. You can’t enforce red lines and guarantee against undesirable outcomes in Middle East unless you’re prepared to use force. And if you’re prepared to use force, you can’t honestly promise to avoid war.

Trump isn’t the first presidential candidate to make incoherent sets of promises, and every president, if he’s not a pure isolationist or a blatant imperialist, struggles with the dilemma of exerting American influence in the world’s hot spots without going to war. But the vehemence with which Trump simultaneously blasted his predecessors for weakness and for war mongering, coupled with an extraordinarily hostile news media, makes the dilemma seem more acute for this president.

No wonder Trump had so much trouble making up his mind about whether to strike Iran in retaliation for attacking our drone.

The potential way out of Trump’s dilemma is to recognize that using military force is not the same thing as going to war. Trump understands this, even if some of his conservative critics seem not to. For example, this president has been able, through military strikes, to enforce a red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. That use of force didn’t lead us into war, and as far as I can tell, Syria has stopped using weapons of mass destruction against its people.

It’s also quite possible that a targeted retaliatory strike against Iran wouldn’t lead to war. Iran has the capacity to wage war against the U.S., whether by shooting at our ships or unleashing proxies to attack our troops. However, its leaders probably understand that our capacity to inflict damage on Iran vastly exceeds Iran’s capacity to harm the U.S. (although inflicting political harm on Trump through a military conflagration must seem like a tempting option in Tehran).

Thus, more likely than not, a U.S. retaliatory strike of the kind Trump initially ordered, or even a more lethal strike, would not lead to war. It’s even possible that going to the brink of war in this fashion, in the context of the harsh sanctions that Iran once again labors under, might lead to negotiations through which we can reduce tensions with the regime and reach a better nuclear deal.

The likelihood of that happy an outcome seems low. But the likelihood Trump can deter future Iranian attacks on shipping and U.S. assets without going to war (in the sense that Trump promised not to do) is substantial.

Yet Trump can’t curb Iranian aggression without taking some risk of real war. Nor, without being willing to take that risk, can he guarantee that Iran won’t develop nuclear weapons. Iran now says it will no longer adhere to the terms of the Obama nuclear deal. This puts the regime on the path to obtaining nukes. Short of military strikes against Iranian facilities, how can Trump ensure that Iran won’t go all the way down that path?

Trump’s liberal critics say he can do so by reversing course and embracing Obama’s nuclear deal. However, doing so wouldn’t ensure against Iran getting nukes. Obama’s deal, on its face, provided no such assurance. At best, all it did was buy time, years of which have already elapsed.

In any case, Trump’s rhetoric precludes re-adopting Obama’s deal. And all but Trump’s most ardent supporters will balk if he re-adopts it with a few face-saving features.

It won’t do if the new sheriff turns out to be the same as the old sheriff.

The new sheriff has to accept some risk of war, while using all of the skill and suppleness he can muster to achieve his goals without war.